Ali Alfoneh is a visiting research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He has written extensively on the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and the Basij militia. We spoke with Mr. Alfoneh today about Iran's various power-brokers, and what the regime's founding father might think of his Islamic Republic were he alive today. This interview has been edited for sake of length and clarity:
RCW: The White House announced new sanctions yesterday on Gen. Rostam Qasemi of the IRGC. Youâ??re very familiar with the Guards Corps, do you think this is a step in the right direction from Washington, or does it not go far enough?
Alfoneh: By targeting Khatam al-Anbia Construction Base of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and Brigadier General Rostam Qasemi, its Chief, the Obama administration has sent an important signal to the Iranian public: The United States is not an enemy of the Iranian people, but targets the leadership of the IRGC which suppresses democratic aspirations of the Iranians, and whose nuclear ambitions exposes Iran and Iranians to diplomatic isolation and economic sanctions. However, Khatam al-Anbia only constitutes a small part of the economic empire of the IRGC, and the United States government should also prepare sanctions against credit and financial institutions of the IRGC and the Basij such as Sarmayeh-Gozari-ye Mehr-e Eghtesad-e Iranian, Moassesseh-ye Mali/Eghtesadi-ye Mehr, Bonyad-e Ta'avon-e Basij, Bonyad-e Ta'avon-e Sepah and Moassesseh-ye Mali/Eghtesadi-ye Ansar.
RCW: Youâ??ve also written extensively on the Basij. Do you think the Green Movement will need to split the ranks of the IRGC and the Basij in order to advance its cause?
Alfoneh: The Basij has shown a relatively poor performance during the post election crisis, in part due to the structure of the Basij as a neighborhood and university based vigilante organization. As Basij members failed to show up to beat up their own neighbors and fellow students the IRGC was forced to mobilize Basij members from the outskirts of major population centers to suppress urban unrest, and on October 5, 2009 the Basij changed command and was formally integrated within the organizational framework of the IRGC Ground Forces in order to secure greater efficiency. More intelligent and efficient opposition communication to the Basij members would leave the 125,000 strong IRGC the last bastion of the regime in case of continued revolutionary activity.
RCW: Ayatollah Khomeini has been dead for over twenty years now. On this 31st anniversary of his revolution, do you think he would be able to recognize the fruits of his labor? Would he approve?
Alfoneh: The late Grand Ayatollah Rouhollah Khomeini ruled the Islamic Republic of Iran with the ruthlessness of a devout man convinced of his own rectitude. Vindictive and merciless, Khomeini massacred thousands of political opponents "to the greater glory of God," in an attempt to "eradicate those spreading corruption upon earth," and by "saving the misled from eternal damnation and tortures in hell" by torturing them in his own prisons. Therefore, Khomeini would be disappointed by the fact that his successor Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has not managed to terrorize the public into submission and has betrayed the divine republic by being indecisive.
RCW: Regardless of what happens today, where does the Iranian Green Movement go from here? Can there be compromise with the current regime?
Alfoneh: Khamenei does not know his Khomeini, or his Machiavelli for that matter. He desires to be both popular and feared and does not realize that he has to choose one of the two in times of crisis. Therefore, Khamenei is likely to further alienate the Green Movement and more than half of the political elites of the Islamic Republic without terrorizing them into submission. Such indecisiveness is bound to be exploited by the opposition unless the IRGC leadership forces Khamenei to make a choice and take responsibility for harsh repression of the protesters.
RCW: Giving it your best guess, what does Iran look like in five years?
Alfoneh: Any student of political science and history knows that prediction of political revolutions is almost impossible, while social revolutions are more easily detectable. Iran has been going through a social revolution for the past one hundred years, which on two occasions led to political revolutions: The constitutional revolution of 1906 and the revolution of 1979. The ability of the Islamic Republic to suppress the democratic opposition in times of weakness in order to fend off regime collapse - and reversely to give considerable concessions such as political liberalization in more stable periods - could secure survival of the Islamic Republic. Unfortunately, the Iranian leadership does not seem to have learned many lessons from the past, it commits mistakes of His late Imperial Majesty the Shah and will therefore sooner or later suffer the destiny of the imperial regime.